Food matters (more than we know)

Eindhoven Healing Arts – Jennifer M

Living in a country that is not your native land presents innumerable challenges and opportunities for growth. Not the least of which can be maintaining good health, and re-establishing equilibrium in an environment where everything is new and perhaps a bit strange.

The local food culture is one aspect of a new environment that can impact us very intimately. Experiencing new flavors, aromas and customs can be a deeply rewarding part of traveling or living in a new community, and at the same time, can contribute to the stressful load of new things that we need to adapt to.

Perhaps the most valuable takeaway for me from all of my years of studying and practicing natural medicine is that our capacity for self healing and preservation far exceeds what we generally give ourselves credit for. My journey into natural medicine started with food; a seriously dysfunctional relationship with food, to be specific. I’ve experienced first-hand the significant impact that food can have on our energy, mood, consciousness, and our ability to think clearly. Food is a magnificent gift from Nature Herself which we take in at regular intervals to heal and regenerate our cells, blood, tissues, muscles and bones. It can be a major factor in creating health and vitality and preventing disease. Used skillfully, food can be thy medicine. Misused, it can and does move us toward a suboptimal experience of life, and an early grave.

I’ve come to experience mealtimes as frequent and essential opportunities for self healing. The good news is that we encounter this pleasurable opportunity several times each day. day. However, sadly, modern realities such as work schedules, economic issues, travel, extended periods of sitting, lack of vitality and chemical additives in our food supply, and no time (or desire) to cook can present significant challenges. The consequence is that our body’s deep desire and need for adequate nutrition is often left wanting.

These are complicated issues and realities. However, there are some fairly simple and immediate things we can do to ease the loads of stress and less-than-perfect food choices on our bodies, and optimize our ability to access the nutritive, pleasurable and energetic qualities of the food that we consume.

Of course – don’t get me wrong – the quality, vitality and energetic properties of our food matter a lot, and the “right diet” for each body will depend on innumerable factors and variables, and will change as circumstances change, rendering general recommendations of little value. For this reason it’s essential to develop an intimate and deeply respectful relationship with our bodies, and to create a sacred environment for ourselves around mealtimes. Heightening our sensitivity and trust in our ability to make choices that are deeply nourishing is a pivotal starting point for excellent health.

Here I offer a few simple, non-food-related strategies for enhancing digestive power, and our ability to sense and respond to our bodies’ deepest needs, regardless of whether we are at home, at work, traveling, eating in restaurants or out of a brown paper bag.

First, it’s important to recognize signs of digestive health and stress. Some of these may be obvious, others maybe not so:

Signs of healthy digestion: Stable energy and mood, feeling light, bright eyes, mental clarity, regular, well-formed bowel movements, physical strength, good stamina, restful sleep, good color, enthusiasm, confidence, patience, smiling easily and often.

Signs of poor digestion: Energy crashes, feeling heavy or headachy, stomach pain, gas, bloating, gurgling, belching, nausea, acidity, constipation or diarrhea, feeling weak, pale or pasty complexion, anxiety, irritability, sluggishness, insomnia, disinterest or inability to concentrate, feeling easily frustrated.

Though there’s an enormous amount of wisdom natural systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine can offer in terms of lifestyle adaptations, exercises, and treatments for enhancing digestion and revitalizing body and mind, here are a few simple yet potent reminders and strategies to begin with.

– Sit down when you eat (at a table, not in a car, or at your desk), and take your time. Reading, watching TV, and intense or emotional conversations are best left for times other than mealtimes. All of these activities stimulate peripheral muscle or brain activity, sending your body’s energy and attention upward and outward, leaving the digestive organs without. -There’s an old Ayurvedic saying, “When you eat standing up, death looks over your shoulder.”

– Eat slowly, taking the time to chew your food. Perhaps this sounds too simple and obvious, but the pace of modern life often precludes this practice. Digestion begins in the mouth. Chewing each mouthful thoroughly reduces digestive distress and post-meal sleepiness and promotes assimilation of nutrients. It naturally helps to regulate intake of food and promote weight loss, if necessary. By slowing down and allowing the body to recognize when it’s full, we invite the wisdom and subtle language of the body to join us at the table and gently inform us when we’ve had enough.

– Eat meals at regular intervals and avoid snacking in between. This one’s important, and yes, it contradicts modern recommendations that favor frequent snacking to stabilize blood sugar. Bare with me here. If our blood sugar were “stable,” there would be no need to rescue it every few hours with a snack. Hunger and irritability between meals is a sign of imbalance, and a sign that the previous meal was likely lacking in nutrients or energetic value essential for YOU, and is an opportunity to consider how to pack a more satisfying nutritional punch during mealtimes. Further, our digestive organs need a little downtime to rejuvenate between tasks, just like we need to rest between energy intensive activities. As always, however, listen to your body. Never allow yourself to go hungry in the vain of “willpower” to force your body into a “proper” schedule. In general, focusing on meals, where you sit down, eat in a slow, relaxed manner, and choose satisfying foods will allow a routine that makes sense for your unique circumstances to evolve, whether it be three, four, or maybe more meals a day at the beginning.

– Have your main meals early in the day, when the digestive fire is naturally stronger. Eat more and be sure that you are fully satisfied at breakfast and lunch. The last food of the day should be taken at least 2 ½ – 3 hours before bed, and ideally, dinner is much lighter than meals taken earlier in the day. This aligns our intake with the body’s need for energy throughout the day, and quiet, calm, restful sleep in the evening. An enormous meal sitting in the belly late in the evening is likely to interfere with the sleep cycle – which can further deplete a run down system.

– Stay warm! Inside and out. Warm food, warm drinks, warm socks. Seriously. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Even the most nutritious foods and beverages, when taken cold, can present an overwhelming task for a digestive fire that is weak or overburdened. While a small amount of cold and raw food may be tolerated well, if your body is showing signs of digestive distress, adding some warmth will likely ease the burden and relieve symptoms. Taking measures to keep your hands, feet, knees and low back warm will also reinforce your body’s efforts to maintain efficient metabolism.

Simply put, the logistics of when and how we eat, as well as the temperature of our food, can be significant factors in alleviating stress on the digestive system and positively shifting our body’s ability to feel well and assimilate vital nutrients. I don’t believe in hard and fast rules about anything, but have myself experienced the wisdom of these recommendations. I’d love to hear your feedback, or about other health supporting strategies that have worked for you.

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